Oh, John Hurt! or, ‘Some people really don’t like Thatcher. At all.’
Given the current political climate here in the UK and the fact I don’t know who reads this I suppose I should be slightly careful about how I put this. To some, the Tory party aren’t….good. At all. Or even a bit. When the Conservatives controlled much of British politics for the 1980s it led to a large counter cultural movement. This took in music, comedy, literature and art and even comics.
In fact some of the best writers of comics made their start here, and one of them wrote the only graphic novel to be included on Time’s list of the 100 greatest novels of the twentieth century; Watchman.
Which I’m not going to be doing, at least not yet. If the reference to Tory politics didn’t give me away then I will be looking at one Alan Moore graphic novel, the now hugely famous V for Vendetta. Published first in ten issues from 1982-1985 the story deals with the fallout on a British society surviving a nuclear war, falling to a fascist government and the efforts of an unnamed and masked anarchist to bring truth to the people and bring down the government.
Whilst at the time the comic run did achieve some success it was arguably the 2006 film that brought it to wide popular attention. It was directed by one of the assistant directors from the Matrix trilogy and was originally slated for release the day before Guy Fawkes day 2005 but released in March the next year to fairly positive reviews and a decent box office performance.
Considered in isolation the film is a remarkably well put together movie. The design and production of the film adds flair and class to the action film and the whole world of the film feels well put together and thought through. The casting is particularly good, clearly drawing influence from the graphic novel. Particular highlights are John Hurt as the head of the Norsefire government, Stephen Fry as a TV host walking a dangerous line between freedom and punishment and the wonderfully creepy Tim Pigott-Smith as the head of the secret police. The leads are the main draw though, Hugo Weaving‘s voice adds some much-needed gravity to the role of V and whilst Natalie Portman struggles to keep up with him, she still manages to draw out the psychological damage living in a nightmare of a world.
As I said, there is a great deal to like in this film; mainly due to the risks that it takes (for a blockbuster, anyway) The issues of censorship, psychological terror and the ability of our politics to be exploited by those eager enough for power to do so are themes that you don’t normally expect to see in a major cinematic release. My own personal favourite parts of the films are part of these unexpected scenes. The flashback sequence featuring Natasha Wightman as one of the regime’s ‘social undesirable’s’ imprisoned for falling in love with a woman, are some of the films best moments. Heart-breakingly sad, beautifully written and touching it adds emotional clarity and realism to the film, surprising for the sheer unexpected nature of it.
The sequences that these scenes are contained within are also worth bringing up. Portman’s character plays a vicitm of the regime – someone who has lived with fear as a psychological reality that poisons the mind. She is captured by V, the nameless revolutionary, and without her knowledge of who it is she is tortured and convinced that she is about to die. At the very end, she discovers her courage, looses her fear of death and V reveals what he’s done to her. The whole thing is far from easy to watch and brings V away from being a simple good guy and drags him into an extremely morally grey area. To be honest, I like this – without the hero becomes a little…dull, and given the terror that this government aims to inspire and rule by a straight forward good guy just wouldn’t work.
If you haven’t seen the film, I really recommend that you seek it out, and I hope that I haven’t given too many spoilers that would leave a first time viewer feeling cheated. But once you watch it, then go away and read the collected ten issues that make up the magnificent V for Vendetta. When you do, I won’t be surprised if you feel as I do; as if the film is not quite as good.
To be honest this is not a conclusion I really wanted to come to – as I really enjoyed the film; but the graphic novel is sheer genius. To justify what may sound like fandom drooling a little explanation of Alan Moore’s way of working has to be put in here. Here’s a list of all of the things that Alan Moore wanted to get into the plot. Ready? Here we go…
– George Orwell
– Thomas Disch
– Judge Dredd
– Harlan Ellison’s, ‘Repent Harelquin’ Said the Ticktockman
– Vicent Price’s Theatre of Blood and Dr Phibus
– David Bowie
– Farenheit 451
– The Prisoner
– Britain post-WW2 cinema
– Thomas Pynchon
– Robin Hood
And that isn’t even all of the references that Moore manages to squeeze into his work. The short amount of space is crammed with references, visual clues, wordplay and allusions much in the same way that Watchmen did, as here as with that masterwork Moore makers it work. Without hyperbole this is pop-culture artistry of the highest order; made even better by the fantastic art work of Moore’s long time partner in crime, David Lloyd, (whenever you see his name, buy it. The man is one of the best comic artists ever…)
The best praise that can be lavished on this book is that is in very much a work of British dystopia, the tradition of Huxley and Orwell; that branch of writing that always asks the most awkward questions and refuses to do as it is told. The politics of the era is a clear influence on Moore who has been recorded saying that the Tory party would obviously lose the 1983 election and that a Labour government, committed to disarmament would allow the UK to escape the oncoming nuclear war. In the aftermath, Moore believed the facists would take over the British system and turn Britain into an extreme dictatorship.
Whilst this is something that comes across in the film, even with the updating in the film’s setting here is a somewhat deeper reason why I feel the book is better. Brace yourselves, there may be some light philosophy ahead…
I’ll try and put this as simply as possible so, here we go….The film makes a few changes to the political orientation of the graphic novel. Whereas in the book the government are unmistakenably facists, the film plays the villians rather differently. Still, unmistakenably bad people, but rather more like extreme Republicans. Whilst this is probably to do with updating the films setting and the Bush era of US politics that produced the film, it also changes the hero. Here, V becomes a liberal do-gooder, aiming to unseat a government to free people to do as they wish.
All very well and good, there is nothing wrong with being a liberal do-gooder and the change in perspective allows certain sections of the US media to complain about their favoured bogey-man, ‘Hollywood elite.’ Which is never a bad thing and does always supply some good fun
This is an unmistakeably British book. It is about British politics, the British psyche and the British people. Interestingly Moore does not make V a liberal, possibly seeing that as something far too within the political mainstream to really challenge the order of the government’s rule. Within the pages of the novel V is an anarchist – someone here to bring choas to the rigidity of the social order, but crucially someone much more dangerous.
This change in philosophy is really what got me thinking about which was better and I have to side with the book. Whilst the film is excellent it misses something of the orginal source material. When the sin of omission is this subtle it would usually feel like nit-picking or just finding flaws for the sake of it, but the more I think about it, the more this matters. Something as textually dense as work written by Alan Moore doesn’t allow you to make even the smallest mis-step. It isn’t like this is a new issue either, as this is a problem that the adaptation of Watchmen also runs into.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad film. Far from it, this is a really really good film. It could have been an incredible film, and in reality it came within a hair’s bredth of being fantastic. And the fact that it misses by such a small gap is just frustrating beyond words.
But then, that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?